(Listen as you read for a fuller experience.)
He craned his long, white neck around the trunk of a tree. His wiry fingers curled around a branch and held him as he leaned forward, sniffing the air for any lingering of her perfume. Nothing.
His lips narrowed in frustration as he peered as far as he could into the darkness in all directions. Even with his keen sight, all he could see were the twisting branches and fallen leaves intertwining with the cold mist.
After a long moment standing still and hearing nothing, he softly crept forward, winding his way through the tall, leaf-less trees, stopping here and there to again sniff, peer, and listen. Time and energy were no barriers to him. He would find her.
She wound her way through the tall, leaf-less trees, stopping here and there to unstick her long coat from the rocks and twigs that tore at the fabric as she walked steadily through the forest. She had left before sunrise and had reached the forest before any light could show her leaving. It was now hours since then, and she welcomed the covering darkness of the dense forest.
She was hungry and thirsty and tired, but she had no thought of stopping, not yet. She had managed to bring one small bag of stolen food and water. If all went well, it would be enough, but she couldn’t use up what she had too soon. She would find him, kill him, and then she would have no more need, but it might still be some time before she did. He was clever and old, and he had done this many times. She was clever too, but she did not have his experience, and, she admitted to herself, probably lacked his patience. She had to be careful.
As he slinked through the trees, he thought of all he could predict of her. She was perceptive, guarded, and brave. If she managed to find her way out of this forest, she would have no trouble going yet farther, farther than he would be able to reach her. He had to find her before he reached the edge of the forest. It was his only chance.
After many long hours, she came to a clump of trees, their low branches entwining to form a roof above her. She sat down and opened her bag. As she slowly ate, she fingered the blade hidden beneath her sleeve. It was the same blade she had kept under her pillow every night, fingering it then to help her fall asleep. It was her comfort now, too, her only external weapon against anything that may be tracking her. As she ate, her thoughts drifted to him: he was cunning, measured, both alluring and repelling. She could almost feel his deep black eyes searching for her through the fog. At least, she hoped they were. She knew she could never overcome him there, in his walled fortress, but here in the vast forest perhaps she had a chance. It was her only one.
She heard a loud crash above and then saw a jagged line of lightning at the top of the trees. Hard, cold rain came down. She pulled her hood over her head, packed her food, and again started walking.
He smiled at the sudden storm. The cold rain would speed her fatigue and the lighting would give him brief moments of full visibility. He continued trudging forward, now taking less care to be silent, his determination and confidence unwavering. He would not be cold, and he was able to hide even in the plain view a lightning bolt may give. This storm would hasten their meeting. He would find her soon.
The rain fell hard and fast through the bare branches and onto the quickly-soddening ground below. Periodically, loud thunder interrupted the steady beating of the rain, and lighting bleached every tree and rock. Night had come and a nearly-full silver moon was visible straight over head.
She was almost running now, moving in careless zig-zags. She was growing more and more tired, but her quick pace kept her warm, and she had not lost hope. If he was looking for her too, then they would soon meet, and it would be over. She stopped briefly, pulled the blade from beneath her sleeve, and held it firmly in her hand. She had just to keep looking and be ready.
He stopped abruptly at the sound of rustling. His hearing was not confused by the dripping of the rain or the crash of the thunder. He could hear a distinct swish, swish not too far ahead. His eyes became slits as he made his vision stretch as far as it could, trying to catch the blotch of red fabric coming in and out of view among the branches and rain drops. He crept forward and stopped. There was a flash of lightning, and then he was sure.
Her back was to him but she knew he was there. It was nothing more than raw intuition and the weight of his gaze that was almost tangible, but she was sure. His eyes were on her and the rest of him would be soon. She made no change in her movements and tried to steady her breath. She had to keep luring him to her. Her only chance was to pretend she did not know he had found her.
He walked to her slowly, as silently as possible, keeping a fixed gaze on the hem of her coat dragging over the ground. More and more of her appeared as he neared her. Soon he could see all of her – hood-covered head, one arm extended, one arm bent to clutch the strap of the bag across her chest, the long tail of the coat tattered.
She could feel him close now and she had to muster all control to keep from crying out or running away. She made her feet take steady steps and clutched harder at her knife. The right moment would come soon.
His steps were barely perceptible. He was still as stone except for his feet that seemed to float over the ground. He was almost to her now, and he extended one long, thin arm, fingers and nails outstretched to her shoulder. One more second and then his claws dug into her, piercing her coat and dress, sinking right through her skin.
She felt the very first touch of his nails and immediately spun around. He had her, she could feel the sting of the blood flowing out of her skin, but still she thrust and dug her steel blade into any part of him she could find.
For just a moment he staggered back in shock at her attack, her blood running down his nails and fingers. A moment was all she needed to find the exact center of his chest. She lunged to him, blade point aimed straight, and jabbed the weapon deep until its handle meet his chest. Even through the beating rain she heard the crunch of his sternum below his punctured skin. She drew back, eyes wide, as she watched blood pour from his chest, down over his legs, and mix with the little streams of water on the ground.
His body wavered in the air as his feet became unsteady. He groaned a low, deep sound.
She looked up to his face, paler than ever before. Blood slowly pooled in his eyes until it was just black and red fear staring back at her. The blood started dripping slowly down his eye lashes, red rivulets drawing across his hollow cheeks and cracking lips. She wanted to turn away but was too afraid to do anything but watch the life fade away from him.
His legs finally gave way and he collapsed to the floor, a heap of bloody, thin limbs, dark fabric, and wiry, red-stained fingers. He was still.
She waited, watching him and steadying her breath. She reached up to her shoulder, feeling the damp gash still wetting her clothes. It grew silent and she realized it had stopped raining. The sky above the gnarled trees seemed to be lightening.
He continued to be still and her breath was now even. She tentatively walked towards his crumpled body. She gave it a gentle kick. Nothing.
Her lips curved up into a smile as she knelt down, took one swipe of blood from his dead lips with her finger, and brought it to her mouth. For a moment she savored the salty-sweet, metallic taste. Then she took the blade from his chest, rose to her feet, and walked calmly into the brightening forest.